FOR THE HOMELESS and the poor—struggling, as always, to escape the streets of Portland—these past several months have not been especially kind.
Early this summer, we saw the Portland Business Alliance (PBA) nearly muscle a new "sit-lie" Trojan Horse through the Oregon Legislature—backed with a wink and a nod from Mayor Charlie Hales.
Then we saw the mayor—after promising in his State of the City speech to deal with the roots of homelessness and not just its obvious brambles—announce a series of sweeping crackdowns on camping and sidewalk trespassing.
The effort did include a series of "informational" bull sessions with advocates. (And, at one point, some actual homeless people!) But it was mostly dressed up in Hales' heavy-handed talk of "lawlessness" and food carts for city hall—rhetoric that drew, as we first reported, political criticism from one of his own colleagues, Commissioner Nick Fish.
About the same time, we saw the downtown business community launch and hype a sidewalk "civility" push—making hay about assaults and panhandling and demonizing the street kids who come to Portland in the summer, forgetting to ask what kinds of troubles and illnesses and addictions those travelers might be running from.
Then, more recently, the Portland Business Journal got in the act, stunning advocates with a package of stories summarily condemning the region's anti-homelessness efforts thus far as a failure—relying on quotes from the PBA and a development firm who'd benefit from changes to the status quo.
And, of course, we've seen the Pearl District—all full of hate and stereotypes—lament plans to relocate Right 2 Dream Too from Old Town.
Hales had helped preside over those plans, but then, as the Mercury first reported, he was personally emailing one of the private developers leading that fight, Dike Dame, his assurances he would back off while the Pearl neighbors tried for their own deal with Right 2 Dream Too. His office has also quietly pondered a worst-case scenario, in consultation with developers, that would reunite the city's housing and urban-renewal agencies.
Even the lone bright spot in all that gloom—some $2 million in one-time city cash targeting women, families, and other vulnerable people on the streets—was a direct result of Hales and Housing Commissioner Dan Saltzman having to assuage sore feelings in the wake of otherwise bellicose behavior.
If there's a thread to all that awfulness, it's this: Our local conversation around these issues has become, in a word, inhumane.
So you can imagine my delight when I heard, last Friday, November 22, that a group of advocates and social service workers had taken steps to fight back. They've launched a social media storytelling campaign—based on the Twitter hashtag #MyHomePDX—exhorting people to talk proudly about their own experiences giving and volunteering, and encouraging everyone else to start doing the same.
"We want folks to understand who experiences homelessness in their communities, and their humanity and their struggle, and understand that this really could happen to any of us," says Alison McIntosh of Neighborhood Partnerships, one of the groups helping to lead the effort, alongside Street Roots. "That's uncomfortable for us to think about."
But it's also more than an attempt to reframe a vexingly polarized debate. In reminding us of our shared sense of compassion, it's also creating the bones of a campaign for a permanent and dedicated source of safety net funding.
"There's a silent majority who care about homelessness and poverty issues," says Israel Bayer, Street Roots' executive director.
Actually Bayer is understating his point. The latest Oregon Values and Beliefs Project found 79 percent of Portlanders support programs aimed at preventing hunger and homelessness.
If anything, we've got a silent supermajority. And it's time to start speaking up.